Hearing the machinery of a running printing press coming from the same legendary street where a hundred years ago Jewish immigrants crowded into tenement buildings and Yiddish newspapers including the Forward delivered the news of the day, created an imaginary feeling of being back in that historic era of over a century ago.
As I walked the eight blocks of Orchard Street recently, I couldn’t resist following that one particularly loud sound and headed towards the printing press. Could this be another Jewish newspaper printing a daily edition for the masses like 1913?
Through an open door I was greeted by the Orchard Street press business of 2013: printing thousands of Chinese restaurant take-out menus.
Alas, taking a self-guided walking tour of Orchard Street today is an experience that is filled with change and historic discoveries. Starting at the southern corner of Orchard and Houston Streets, my history lesson began with the first steps looking at a sliver of Manhattan that I’ve passed by for decades (a park across from Katz’ Delicatessen, Russ & Daughters and Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes) but never noticed. This tiny triangular park called Peretz Square is named for Isaac Loeb Peretz, a lawyer who called for a greater assimilation of Jews into the larger community. He wrote and edited Yiddish and Hebrew journals. His story seemed to be an appropriate beginning to an Orchard Street walk. Heading a few blocks on Orchard to Delancey Street, it’s hard to find many remnants of the old days. But you can still see some of the old store signage from the past -- Altman’s Luggage, Josef’s Sportswear, Beckenstein’s Woolens, Freedman’s Gent’s Furnishings and Sam’s Knitwear to name a few. No doubt the census listings of Yiddish speaking residents from the early 1900’s with names including Goldie, Fannie, Joseph, Gittle, Isaac, Abraham have mostly been replaced by the more popular names of today.
You’ll notice a sign stating that the tenement at 97 Orchard Street has been declared a National Historic Landmark. And for good reason since it is part of the Tenement Museum complex that welcomes visitors with a wide range of historic programs including guided tours and speakers as well as a most inviting book and gift department which can keep you mesmerized with its wide variety of wonderful Judaica materials.
Perhaps as you reminisce and walk along Orchard Street you too may
remember shopping for traditional clothing from the Jewish owned businesses of the past. The street has changed with high-priced condominium apartments replacing many of the tenements and hip sounding clothing shoppes attracting the younger crowd. Go on a Sunday when the street is closed down to vehicles and unfortunately you won’t see the masses of suburbanites who decades ago came to the Lower East Side for a day of shopping. Businesses from the past have been replaced by stores like “Shi Eurasia”which showcases cuisine from British, Irish, European and Asian sources. The elementary school PS 42 proudly hangs banners listing the wide variety of languages spoken by students and teachers at the school today--Yiddish and Hebrew not being on the list. Indeed businesses like “JFK Restaurant Supply” with its array of Japanese equipment seem to fit right in to the neighborhood today.
During my walk, I noticed all the “No Parking-Tow Away Zone” signs from the New York City Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcast Media announcing that Orchard Street would be closing down for a couple of days for the filming of a Chinese movie. I couldn’t help but imagine a black and white film being shot on Orchard Street today with thousands of cramped tenement dwelling movie extras along with pushcarts helping to recreate life on this historic street from 1913.
Sadly, that clamoring sound of the take-out Chinese menu printing press quickly brought me back to the realities of Orchard Street today.